Holiday Headaches: In-Laws, Out-Laws, By-Laws

I loved my in-laws. Go figure. In fact, my ex-husband’s family was one of the best parts of the marriage. I hit the jackpot there, and can’t deny that I’ve missed having his family in my life.

Of course, my in-laws didn’t live next door or in the next town or even in the next county. Try an ocean between us, and yet I would have enjoyed being closer. They were good people, good to me, and not the sort who interfere.

In-Law Problems in the Family Dynamic?

Opinions? Sure. We all have them. And occasionally my in-laws offered them, despite the distance. But intrusive?

Not their style.

This sort of in-law situation is the exception – at least, according to the jokes and lore of our culture. What may be common is the existence of problems many couples experience with in-laws during prolonged visits, especially at the holidays. Doesn’t this time of year tend to exacerbate unresolved issues, or more basic conflicts in priorities and routines?

Your Tango features tips on holiday headaches with in-laws, navigating the tricky territory of obstacles that threaten to make them out-laws. Some are common sense, but one in particular struck a chord.

Tips for Improving In-Law Issues

According to the article:

Tied to a spouse, we are put back in the position of being a “kid.” In-laws might believe they can control, persuade, evaluate, judge and “educate” us as if we were their children.

Okay. We get that. We’re being treated like kids by our parents and partner’s parents as we find ourselves regressing.  Or, we’re the parents and regressing in our behaviors toward adult children.

Perhaps the best advice in this article, in my opinion, is a fundamental principle in dealing with anyone – and it is this.

What is motivating the guilt-trip or negative remark that may set us off?

Answering that, or even remembering to ask, is about putting ourselves in the mind set of the others in the equation. Are they feeling out of their element? Disoriented by their own aging as they see us managing our own lives and households? Are there significant value differences that are always present, and more challenging when spending extended periods of time together?

Another observation: Sometimes, you simply don’t like your spouse’s father, or the eccentric brother, or Great Aunt Rose for that matter. Nothing will change that fact, but you can be adult about recognizing that it’s in your own best interest to be civil – not only for your partner but for your children.

Fighting with Your Spouse

Speaking of your partner, do you squabble more at the holidays with your spouse or significant other? Is it over details, money, logistics, or more of whatever you fight about generally? Do you at least fight fair, so the damage is contained and the differences that are aired clear the air?

Do you have by-laws in your family – even if only tacitly agreed to – that include respectful disagreement?

By-laws may be thought of as the rules or guidelines by which an organization operates – a framework to keep things clear and functional. In my household for example, there were guidelines about respect, honesty, communication, and making your best effort.

When it came to arguing, we didn’t hit below the belt and apologies were extended if and when appropriate.

And if constant friction is the norm in the couple, won’t it lead to snapping at the kids or at your own middle-age or elderly parents? Doesn’t this cycle us back to the basic rule that applies to every relationship: put yourself in the other guy’s shoes?

Holiday Headaches (Keeping the Peace)

What happens when you practice even a small measure of imagining what the other person is thinking or feeling?

You ask what’s wrong, you make the space and time to genuinely listen, and if you don’t have that time immediately, keep in mind we all have our own issues and truths and points of view.

You may have to agree to disagree, and compromise to keep the peace.

Let’s face it.

Holiday season is fraught with expectations, jammed schedules, brutish traffic that will drive you to hit the egg nog early and hard. For those businesses that are cyclical in nature, work demands may worsen the stress and at the very least, year-end processes can add to the usual load.

Stir in financial strain when trying to budget for travel or gifts, too many school plays and parties to contend with, kids hyper to be on winter break, teenagers applying to college or muddling through exams – and the pot just may boil over – over and over again.

Care to darken the brew further? What about the sometimes nightmarish logistics for children of divorce and visitation at the holidays? What about kids with divided loyalties, driving to and from airports and train stations, blended family bumps and tussles, not to mention painful recollections for some involved?

May the adults nonetheless remember to put the children’s needs first.

Fundamental Relationship Skills

Generalized tips on managing holiday stress are, it seems to me, reliant on the fundamentals of maintaining working relationships with everyone we deal with. We need to observe, offer a hand, communicate clearly, be understanding – which doesn’t mean allowing resentments to fester and worsen.

Those tips I try to keep in mind:

  • Consider the motivations and issues of the other party if at all possible (empathy)
  • If dealing with contentious individuals, set boundaries; remind them these are the holidays
  • Pick your battles and your timing, carefully
  • Keep your cool, keep the big picture in mind

I would also suggest we remember a few basic rules of playing nice with the ones we love and rely on. Men and women have varying communication styles, and the more tired we are the less adept we become at empathy. The longer those in-law visits will seem when we ought to be enjoying them – and our holidays.

What if you are the in-law receiving adult children or visiting?

Remember not to interfere in what isn’t your business! And if you do wish to voice an opinion, be appropriate and respectful.

  • Do you have special strategies for dealing with in-laws or other relatives who put a strain on your routine?
  • What do you do to limit travel stress at the holidays?
  • What do you consider your relationship “by-laws” – keeping you in sync with your spouse, partner, parents, and kids?

© D. A. Wolf